Saturday, June 9, 2012

If geek is the new cool, then let's ditch the cool kids and join the new geeks

Addendum in late July: the ongoing Morphing of Geekdom continues to spill across fora.  For a very different view of things, from a smart guy who epitomizes cool geek, see this post in John Scalzi's Whatever.

A few different stray things on the internet had been floating around in my mind for a while. Maybe it was noticing that most of the sf critics don't seem to have that big old chip on the shoulder anymore; it has been a while since I've seen any of them hurl "Yeah, well our books have characterization too, so there!" at mainstream or literary critics who have been ignoring them.

Maybe it was a note from a friend, a longtime science fiction fan, who was rejoicing in the fact that his Miss Popularity daughter and her friends were campaigning to have their prom have a Tolkien theme.

Or another note from a friend exulting in how much cooler he is, now, than the people who were crappy to him in high school.

Might have been the interesting diversity of responses to Losers in Space (good sampling at the Goodreads page, and in the editorial reviews in the Barnes and Noble page), which prompted me to drop a note to Sharyn saying "You know, I think the acceleration of mud may be the toilet repair of this book." (She sent back an appropriate snarf. Sharyn and I play well together).

Some of it was the conversation I'm about to report below.

The one that crystallized it for me, though, just yesterday, was Max Castera's piece, "Why Do Kids Prefer Sci Fi over Science?" in Wired's GeekDad section.

Crystallized may be the wrong metaphor. More like finding a perfect piece of backing for a quilt, or perhaps a perfect brain in a jar (the one from Abby Somebody). Castera's piece let me sew together a bunch of stray snippets I'd written, without having them add up or go anywhere, across the last year, plus the thoughts occasioned above, into a sort of a Frankenstein of a blog post, which this is. I still don't know that I myself understand it (mostly it seems to be just going "Ruuuuggggggh!"), and it's kind of an ugly son of gun, but maybe it'll rile some peasants.

About that conversation: So there I was, sitting in a bookstore coffee shop, recharging my caffeine stream and the computer's battery, when I overheard, "Einstein like totally proved that how you experience time depends on your emotions. That's just physics."

I don't know how other novelists work, but eavesdropping is part of the job for me—actually a vital part. It's essential to avoiding having characters talk like people in other books.* So when I hear something, I start spying.

In this case, the person speaking was dressed like she was going to a costume party as a hipster geek, and I was reminded again that hip geeks and geekish hipsters had sort of sneaked up on me over the last couple decades, and that for many people under age thirty-five or so, there was never a time when geekiness wasn't cool or fashionable.

Then her coworker said. "I love physics. I mean, quantum physics. Of course I hate classical physics cause its like industry and killing the Earth** and all."

And the third coworker, a male who looked twice as hip and three times as geek as the other two put together, chimed in with the opinion that quantum physics, which Einstein had "invented" because he was "totally a mystic and a pacifist," meant that "things can be whatever we want them to be so, you know, observer created reality*** we're totally free." And it went downhill from there.****

All three had the mix of clothing and personal style that is somewhere right on the cusp between the cool crowd at a science fiction convention and the local coffeehouse intellectuals, and I was driven to a melancholy realization:

Geeks were never, on the whole, particularly smart.

Even when I was but a wee tad, and there were old geeks even then, the gray-haired geeks I met were often just people with good heads for trivia; an obsession with some less-visited and less-respected aspect of pop culture like vampires, superheroes, flying saucers, etc.; chips on their shoulders about people who were more socially capable, economically successful, or genuinely educated than themselves; and personas encrusted with odd affectations that were some mixture of defensiveness, attempts to be interesting, and genuine eccentricity.

What geeks were, which was very important and did matter very much to smart people, was other-geek-tolerant in a way that opened up room for other people to be smart.

The guy sitting next to you in the propeller beanie who knew the casts (and their careers) of everyone who was ever in a Universal horror movie, or the current positions of all the planets, or all of Monty Python by heart, was often not particularly more gifted intellectually than the teenage girl who could name every backup singer in thirty bands, or the White Sox fan who could tell you all of the last twenty seasons inning by inning, or the car enthusiast who instantly recognized the make, model, and year of every car that went by.

But unlike his or her mundane-hobbyist counterparts, the real geek liked to think that when he or she was sitting on a couch, drinking something sane people would avoid after they could drink legally, he was hanging out with a genius. With a fellow-genius. Ideally with a fellow slan-level uber-genius.

Better yet, the two of them could pretend that they were both sitting next to a fellow etcetera. And if one of them really was smart, bingo, home free, and hurray, there was a friendly place for a brainy person – and such places were (and still are) scarce in our culture. The shy, awkward mathematician who was seeing deeper into the nature of reality than anyone else within a 100-mile radius could feel like somebody liked him for the genius he really was, even if the person appreciating him was just a guy who knew a lot about Green Lantern.

But things move on.

Some of that light leavening of the really talented among the geeks grew older, got jobs in the entertainment industry, and made their dreams, and it turned out they were right all along: this shit was cool. People who used to duct-tape That Poor Hopeless Dork naked and upside down in the girl's locker room were standing in line on Dec. 17 desperately hoping to get a plastic toy from the TPHDverse so as not to ruin their kid's childhood (and were perhaps troubled, in the secret moments before they fell asleep, to be aware that when they said "I knew TPHD in high school, but we were never friends," their kids looked at them with deploring, condescending pity, thinking of course not, you couldn't possibly have been cool enough).

Geekiness became mainstream, and like all mainstream stuff then fragmented (a mainstream is a stream so big that it has room for plenty of turbulence). The consumer-culture toys-and-props side of geek culture grew a hip wing of people who like the same crap but like it ironically so don't lump me in with the lumps!

And smartness went from being tolerated to being assumed to ... well. To I geek therefore I'm smart. To .... let me show you.

Meanwhile back at the eavesdropping, an older guy who dressed like me (so you may trust me, nothing remotely hip was happening in his vicinity; mothers sometimes point me out to their children and say "See what happens if some people are allowed to dress themselves?") took a seat at the counter, and after a while, it turned out that being a high school physics teacher, and perhaps dealing with New Age "Quantum=Abracadabra!" equation in his classroom too often, he endeavored to correct some of the happy babble of the baristas. They told him that he needed to loosen up and get out of all this math stuff or he'd never understand quantum physics, and after he gave up, went off into a discussion of The Watchmen and of why Neil Gaiman's being on The Simpsons was cool, and I'm very happy to say that I can find no way to attribute one iota of what was in these people's heads (or not there, more properly) to Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, or Matt Groening.

After he left, their conversation morphed over to People Who Just Don't Get It, by which they meant not so much that guy who thought he knew physics but had probably never even heard of Deepak Chopra, as much as they meant their parents and some of their employers and teachers, who, like, never ever heard of or even thought about this stuff, so they were like, so cut off, so out of it. I noted that at least for these three little hipster geeks, the Clark Kent glasses, engine-part earrings, sleeved up tats and too-cool 'tude have become their ironclad evidence that despite knowing very little, and being unable to think coherently or cogently about the little they know, they are very comfortable with being brainitude-infested uber smart innalexshuls, to pronounce it as they tended to.***** Smartness consisted of what you bought and how you consumed it, of liking the right products and rejecting everything that didn't fit. They were smart because they were geeks and they were geeks because they were fashion-slaves to geekish peer pressure, not just in products but also in beliefs and ideas and pritnear the whole works.

And a pleasant thought overwhelmed me.

The geeks of a few generations ago, the true paleogeeks, the ones who made geekdom a safe hangout for brains in a world full of bullies, trendies, and trendy bullies, the geeks who were not always likeable or personable but still occupied the most interesting table at lunchtime – those geeks would not have been able to stand these guys behind the counter. (Heck, I would guess many of the geeks of today can't). In fact there was a good chance that that high school physics teacher, who looked like he was competing with me in the final round of Can You Be Mistaken for a Basket of Laundry?, was a genuine old-school real-thing geek, a Geek of Old, if you will.

And the pleasant thought was this: people just like the Geeks of Old are still being born. They are still being badly socialized and squeezed to the outside of school and family and peer groups. They are still growing up into a world that has very little place for them.

In fact, for the moment, the world has less place for the Geeks of Old than it did during Old, because what used to be their place has been overrun with trendy dipshits. Really, it's not even a new sort of social disaster; it's what happened to the hippies for a while, and to the preppies, and might happen to any other broad clique or lifestyle at any moment: the people who want to get what you've got without accepting what you have are essentially a ravening horde of peer-driven fashion-enforcers, and at the moment they've ravened their way into geekdom, but

1)    they won't stay, because they never stay anywhere, and
2)    when they go, they'll have destroyed a lot of bullshit, because it is exactly the bullshit to which they are attracted, and they'll discredit it for generations of geeks yet to come.

Right now, out there, some kid with hardly any friends is muttering to him or herself, "Vampires and zombies are stupid. Space ships and aliens are bullshit. Movies that are all flashing lights and loud noises and based on toys are dumb, and besides there's no explosions in space and that time machine doesn't make any sense and computers can't blow up from typing unacceptable commands any more than paper catches fire when you write bad things on it, and not to mention that a guy who spends all his time running and yelling and shooting would not have any idea how to fix a toaster, let alone a space-time continuumoscopic defenestrator. I am not going to go to the party dressed as a wizard, I am not going to stand in line till midnight to be the first to see SOUND AND FURY: The Tale Told By An Idiot, Part 7, and I am going to stay right here and..."

"... and ..."


There's the beauty!

I don't know and you don't know what that kid is staying home reading/watching/playing instead.

But we live in the world of teh interwebz, and no matter what s/he likes, or is looking for, soon that outcast kid will find another person who has no desire to be a wizard and thinks that Japanese artists may have been snorting a little too hard on the panties from the vending machines and should at least learn to draw people with smaller eyes.

I can't seem to find it online, but decades ago, reading one of Those Magazines That No, Really, I Mean It, I Read It For the Fiction, I encountered a marvelous cartoon: an immense orgy with naked people of all genders in all possible configurations in one vast sprawl, except for a young woman in a somewhat dowdy dress and a young man in a rumpled suit and tie, standing in the middle of the only clear space in that humping, rutting mob. They had eyes only for each other, and one of them was saying, "Really? I like classical music too!"

I wish I could find it because it illustrates exactly my point: that when the genuinely different – not the affectedly set-apart – find each other and discover that they are not the only ones in the world like themselves, the angels sing a capella Bach in heaven. Or perhaps hold a Dixieland parade or a hootenanny or do a kazoo performance of the 1812 Overture. You just never can tell with those angels, they're fun-loving bastards who don't care what's cool. And if that's not what angels are like I'm playing for the other team from now on.

Anyway, only slightly more seriously: this is a big reason why the indie/self-pub revolution is so incredibly wonderful, and why I envy younger writers who won't spend as many years in traditional/legacy publishing. Because there is going to be more and odder odd stuff out there to be found. Because people who like really-smart and demanding-smart more than glib-smart or fashion-smart or of-course-I'm-smart-all-my-friends-are-rich-and-we-all-agree-we-are will be able to find things they like, and through those things, find each other, and the bullying ninny ex-geek in the corner office in New York or LA won't be able to keep them from it.

One reason why As You Like It is still my favorite Shakespeare comedy is this: nearly everyone you see on the stage has realized that the wicked usurper seizing power in the capital is a perfect excuse for all the fun people to run off to the Forest of Arden, put on men's clothes if they don't wear them already, and have fun adventures for their own sake for the next four acts (and then abruptly marry each other because, shucks, it's a comedy, everybody likes a wedding at the end of a comedy).

Well, folks, I am here to tell you: the towers of geekdom are fallen to the hands of the trendroids. The cool people have seized the citadel. Usurper fashionistas sit upon the thrones of glory in Castle Geek, and true geeks creep out the back gate at night, unnoticed, unpursued, unmourned. We are once again exiles

.... in the Forest of Arden! ...

so put on your favorite role and maybe a nice men's outfit******, and join me in hanging up handbills filled with excruciating poetry all over the woods (I intend to hang up Emily Dickinson's "I'm nobody! Who are you?" on any tree that has private property post no bills on it, and maybe tape it to some ultra-serious culture-critic's back when he's not looking).

With the handbills we invite all the new people (that lost kid reading Coleridge in the corner of the library at lunch, the girl who can't tell anyone why she visits all those 19th century fashion plate websites every night, the kid who likes math because of the taste of seven and the ringing tones of primes) to all the new parties. It's gonna be fun out here, away from the usurpers. If it ever gets dull, we can hold a wedding and go sack the castle back.
*I don't try to avoid having characters talk like people in books. They should talk like people in books. They are people in books. They just shouldn't talk like people in other books, unless I'm deliberately imitating the other books. Having people talk like people in other books just because that's how you happen to write them is lazy, misses too many opportunities to do something interesting, and is probably a symptom of not having anything to say (possibly because you read too much to do anything interesting).

**actually she said something more like "kiln thuh earthen awl?" But I immediately realized she was not asking questions about making ceramic woodcarver's tools. Such are the benefits of theatre training in accents and dialects.

***pronounced "azerva crated ree-yatty." Okay, I'll stop now.

****If you don't see anything wrong with any of what they were saying, go away quickly, because I am a bad person and I will hurt you just for fun. Or at least you'll never be able to figure out any other reasons for what I did.

*****Oops. I guess that was the last time, then.

****** or whatever you like, Dr. Furter. Wouldn't want to spoil the party for anyone.